Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options

View Options

Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
page: 134
page: 135



IT WAS a cold wintry afternoon and the white snow clouds were lying low and heavy. Undine, after many almost sleepless nights, crept down to the little parlour and had a fire made there, the first that had been made since Cousin Jonathan left.

Miss Mell, now her friend was getting better, had offered to come and sit up with her; and Undine, as she nestled down in the great armchair, looked forward to a long evening of drowsy rest. Prince lay sleeping before her with his head at her feet, and she, half dozing, watched the little sparks as they fluttered up the chimney. So short, so warm, so bright; how pleasant the life of a spark must be!

“You seem to find something very absorbing in the contemplation of the fire this evening,” said a voice beside her; and Prince, wide awake in an instant, leaped up to greet his master.

“You quite startled me,” she said. “I did not think you would come tonight; it is getting almost dark.”

“Yes; we have the promise of a heavy fall of page: 136 snow,” he said, as he seated himself in an armchair on the other side of the fire.

“You can have no idea what a charming picture this room makes, coming in from the cold outside,” he continued, trying at the same time to repulse Prince, who in a transport of joy had put a paw on each shoulder.

“You must take him home with you tonight,” said Undine. “I am not going to be so cruel as to keep him here any longer; and you must miss him.”

“No, I never miss him. You had better keep him if he is any pleasure to you,” answered the Piece-of-perfection, stretching out one delicate white hand to the dancing flame.

After a short silence he said, “Do you never wish to return to Africa?”

“No,” she replied. “I know no one there. My stepfather has remarried. But I should like to see the old farm and my little monkey's grave again.”

He was leaning back now with his face in the shadow; she could not see the lines she dreaded at the corners of his mouth, so she answered, “Yes, he was the best friend I had.”

Another pause followed; then he said, more abruptly than was his wont, “I have a favour to ask of you, Miss Bock.

“You rather puzzle me,” he said. “I never feel sure I understand you, and I do most men. At times I form an opinion of you, at times another, but page: 137 I never feel sure that I am right. I wish you could satisfy my curiosity and explain to me how it is you come to have such extraordinary views and manners.”

“Why do you not put some other word in the place of ‘extraordinary’—say, ‘pernicious,’ ‘reprehensible’? That is what you really think,” she replied, using a freer speech with him than ever before, for in the firelight the bands of speech are loosed and the tongues of men and women do wonders.

He never paid her compliments or spoke to her as he would to another woman, so he answered quietly, “Those words would be almost too strong; say, unwomanly.”

Another making this remark would have been answered by a contemptuous silence; or at best she would have launched out into a denunciation of that singular injustice which cramps and dwarfs a woman's mind, making it an unpardonable offence against her womanhood to entertain a thought or give utterance to an idea that has not been repeated and reëchoed till it is as stale and unpalatable as a last year's loaf. Tonight she only said: “Why are they unwomanly? What is your idea of what a woman ought to be?”

“You are asking me a question hard to answer,” he replied, looking with his half-closed eyes into the fire. “A woman to be womanly should have nothing striking or peculiar about her; she should page: 138 shun all extremes in manners and modes of expression; she should have no strong views on any question, especially when they differ from those of her surroundings; she should not be too reserved in her manners, and still less too affable and undignified. There is between all extremes a happy mediate, and there a woman should always be found. Men may turn to one side or the other; woman never must.”

Undine said nothing when he ended. She could not help it; she had been born with strong and determined ideas on every subject, sub- and superlunar, and not one step of her sixteen years' journey had she walked in the happy mediate road. It was too late to change now. They had told her that the day would come when she would repent having done nothing to try to conform herself, at least outwardly, to the views of others; and she did repent it as she sat there that evening. She would have parted with all that was highest and best in herself to become a little less Undine, a little more like anyone else. Who was this man, what was he, that he should make her grovel so? she asked herself.

“You have not yet answered me,” said the Piece-of-perfection, again stretching out his delicate hands to the blaze. “Are you going to satisfy my curiosity?”

It seemed so strangely delightful to do something at his request, and yet she seemed to have nothing to tell, nothing that she could tell him; and she said so.

page: 139

“Nothing! And you have lived for sixteen years and in two continents, and certainly are not troubled with lack of ideas. You must excuse me, however. I have no right to press you in this way.”

Undine sat leaning forward with her arms folded on her knees, looking into the bright flame that threw its light full upon her, and began, awkwardly and stupidly enough at first, to tell of the old African days—awkwardly and stupidly enough till she forgot the presence of the man who was leaning back in the shade on the other side of the fire and watching her with his cold blue eyes. Then she saw only Socrates and her governess, and the little Dutch girls, and the old red farmhouse in the Karoo—saw the little round-stone koppies, with their milk bushes and red sand, and was again the little child among them all, with the child's thoughts and longings.

Albert Blair sat and listened without the shade of a sneer upon his lips.

Most men have their moments of insanity, which belie and are at variance with all the days and years of the past and will find no successor in the future, moments when their thoughts and feelings are opposed to all they have ever deemed rational, right or possible.

Such moments came for the first time and the last to the Piece-of-perfection as he sat listening to Undine in the firelight.

page: 140

A pity, nay, a passionate sympathy, filled his heart for her; for one moment he forgot that the soul which troubled itself further than to find and eat the bread and honey of this life was the soul of a fool—forgot that the only right of a woman is the right of the rose—to smile and be, not to think and live.

Forgetting all this, bewitched, befooled, infatuated, he stretched out his hand to the little figure opposite him.

“Your life has been lonely; no one has understood you; you may have had no one to guide you,” he said, speaking for the first time and in a voice strangely sweet and unlike his own. “Will you let me be your friend and take care of you?”

She sat and looked at him as one in a dream.

“Come to me, darling,” he said, holding out his hand to her.

Still she sat and looked at him; then he drew her softly to his arms, and she nestled close to him.

She did not kiss him or speak: only clung to him and rested with her arms round his neck and her head on his shoulder.

If she lay there hours or moments, she did not know; it was enough to be there.

“Why do you lie so quietly, darling? Why do you not tell me that you love me?” he said, turning her face round to his.

page: 141

It seemed to break her rest, and she only answered him by putting her hand softly on his cheek.

“Are you not going to kiss me, my little girl?” he asked again, lightly bringing his lips down to hers and kissing them.

She kissed him and then buried her face in his shoulder.

“Did you ever care about anyone before you loved me? Did you, darling?” he asked her, running his fingers through her hair.

What was the past? What was the future? The present was enough. She answered, “No.”

“You could talk so well a little time ago, and now you can hardly get out one little ‘no’. Tell me that you love me, my little girl.”

“I love you more than anything, more than everything,” she said, holding his face between her two hands and putting her cheek softly against his; then she nestled close to him again.

“Are you happy now?”


“How astonished everyone will be when they hear who is to be my little wife,” said the Piece-of-perfection as he thought with infinite satisfaction of the discomfiture of his father and brother, also of Lady Edith and others of his worshippers. How would she look among them all? Beautiful? His wife must shine and eclipse all women. Men must envy page: 142 him his wife, as they did his dogs and his horses. Would it be so with this little girl?

“Undine, I want you to do something for me,” he said, after a long pause. “I know you will do whatever I tell you. Will you not?”

“Yes,” she said, creeping very close to him.

“You must not spend so much time over your books as you have done. I would rather you left them alone altogether. You must give two or three hours a day to your music, and learn dancing. I want my wife to be deficient in nothing. Do you hear?”

It was the cold Piece-of-perfection with the half-closed eyes that spoke these words, not the lover of half an hour ago, and they struck Undine a little chill; but she only whispered in his ear that she would do all he told her.

“Why do you tremble so, my little darling?” he said, as he stood her down on the hearth rug. “I must go now, but I will come again early tomorrow. How cold your little hands are. Warm them by the fire and then go to bed. Now you belong to me, I don't want you to have dark rings round your eyes, as though you had sat up all night. My wife must be always bright and beautiful, you know. Good-night, darling.” So he left her.

Undine kneeled down before the low window and drew back the blind to watch him as he passed down the garden path.

page: 143

The snow had fallen, the clouds had gone, and the full moon poured down her light on a white glittering world—so white, so pure, so calm. Even the iron paling had its coat of crystal, and the dark evergreens that grew beside the window were bent beneath their load. As far as the eye could reach stretched the silent white snow; only down the little garden path there were his footmarks in it.